Musicologists often reserve their scholarly studies for the likes of Bach and Stravinsky, but in his latest book, Lloyd Whitesell has comprehensively tackled the most avant-garde of pop songwriters, Joni Mitchell. Excerpted below, from his book The Music of Joni Mitchell, is an analysis of the harmonic palette of one her most famous songs, “Both Sides Now,” along with a live performance of the song from 1970.
“Both Sides Now” (Clouds) is one of Mitchell’s most celebrated songs, though her own dejected performance bears little resemblance to the Judy Collins cover version from 1967 which first made it a hit. The harmonies are almost pure major and tend toward the monochrome (I, IV, V). By now we can appreciate how incredibly limited such a palette is in the context of Mitchell’s style. She exploits redundancy for expressive purpose: the repetitive treading of the same harmonic paths captures an appropriately world-weary tone. Yet, with this monochromatic spectrum, Mitchell is careful to create textural variety and sculpt a precise lyrical shape with its own highs and lows.
The tonic pedal (F#) is rarely relinquished…Only twice does E# lead directly up to the tonic, in the vocal line at the end of phrases 1 and 3 (eg., “ice cream castles in the air”). These parallel moments stand out for several reasons. The voice, within a verse of generally drooping contours, rises a full octave span. At the same time, the guitar bursts past the F# which has capped its range until now. Not least, the vocal cadence with its leading tone and clear unconstrained dominant momentarily revokes the tyranny of the pedal. This elated gesture first corresponds with the high spirits at the outset of each verse of the poem. But then the something goes awry: the second half of each verse repeats the gesture of elation, but the words are no longer joyous. The poet now views her former joy with a jaded eye. The same music is used for both takes, the buoyant and the disillusioned…
Mitchell is treating tonality perversely in this song, using cadential movement as a downer and using a surfeit of tonal center as a symbol of tedium and disenchantment. To get the full effect of this virtuosic achievement, one need only compare Mitchell’s version to the Judy Collins cover, in which the astringent, landlocked tonal nuances are swept away in a sugary barrage of primary colors.